Beat the Press

Turns out Arnold views being governor as just another movie promotion: Give the press five minutes, tell them what the questions will be about and move on

Photo By Larry Dalton

Last month, the governor of California visited a Sacramento Costco to collect signatures for a fall ballot initiative reforming worker’s compensation. A half-hour before Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived, hundreds gathered around the gaping mouth of the warehouse store just north of downtown. The smell of hot dogs and pizza, wafting from the outdoor food court, drifted over the crowd.

Shoppers came and went, pushing clattering shopping carts past cops and protesters. But reporters were kept under tight control by the governor’s staff. More than two dozen reporters, photographers and camera operators were corralled inside waist-high metal barricades. Any media types who wandered outside the barrier were herded back inside by administration officials and told they had to remain there.

“I already got kicked out,” said one newspaper photographer, who had escaped the pen and been ordered back inside.

The scene was typical of recent appearances by the new governor, who has kept an unprecedented distance between himself and the press corps assigned to tell Californians what he’s doing. Schwarzenegger relies on self-promotion skills learned from a lifetime in front of the cameras to use the press to his advantage and tell the story he wants told. Along with his new administration came levels of control never before seen in Sacramento, including a savvy press staff that functions less as a conduit for information than as a public-relations team that bases its communications strategy on how exposure or access will advance the governor’s political goals, not how it informs the public.

The tight control sometimes includes restricting access to a single pool reporter who later shares notes and recordings with those kept out. The restrictions drive reporters nuts.

Sacramento Press Club co-chair Don Andrews, a radio reporter for Metro Networks, said pooled coverage makes it very difficult for journalists to do their jobs well. “Access is critical to the public’s understanding of what’s going on under the dome that they pay for,” he said.

In some ways, the restricted access continues the celebrity strategy that Schwarzenegger used during the recall campaign, when he largely ignored political reporters and editorial boards in favor of the entertainment press, right-wing radio, softball TV interviews and high-profile photo ops designed to be cinematic, not substantive.

That’s not to say Schwarzenegger hasn’t been accessible at times to reporters. He has held several press conferences and given one-on-one interviews to some reporters. But Capitol reporters say he’s less available to them than his predecessors were. And, at the same time, the governor is incredibly visible, often using the press corps as a kind of involuntary conduit for the administration’s political message of the day.

That’s what happened at Costco. Schwarzenegger wasn’t coming to collect signatures any more than to save a buck on toilet paper. He went to get his chiseled mug on TV, and it worked. The coercive appearance amplified the message that if lawmakers didn’t make a deal by the weekend, Schwarzenegger would go to the voters.

The seven TV cameras in front of the store would make sure people all over the state saw Schwarzenegger that evening and heard something about how he’s working on workers’-comp reform. The interest his celebrity provides would advertise his agenda—in this case, making the state more business-friendly, the administration’s No. 1 economic goal.

Just before the governor arrived, photographers and TV crews were escorted just inside the front door and deposited behind another barricade, where they could shoot the governor’s entrance. “This is the second time I’ve been in a corral at Costco,” one TV reporter grumbled. “It doesn’t matter what we say or do; they don’t need us for anything.”

Schwarzenegger arrived to a loud cheer, emerging from a giant black SUV. He strode into the warehouse looking unusually tan under the buzzing neon lights. Wearing a black jacket, gray slacks and an open-collar white dress shirt, he gave a thumbs-up to the TV cameras and flashed a huge grin.

As the governor beamed for the cameras, the reporters stuck in the press pen outside—almost all were regular Capitol reporters—still had little information about the ongoing workers’-comp negotiations. In spite of the governor’s campaign promises to bring transparency to state government, the workers’-comp deal had taken shape behind closed doors, in secret, with reporters and voters uninformed of key provisions that later would be rushed through the Legislature.

After he was inside for a couple of minutes, more cheers arose as the governor headed out to the food court in front of the warehouse store. Schwarzenegger pressed the flesh and then made his way to a microphone set up in front of the press pen.

Schwarzenegger spoke to the crowd for two minutes, thanked everyone and then walked off toward his motorcade without taking questions. As he passed the press pen, reporters yelled questions about worker’s comp.

“How close are you?” someone asked.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Schwarzenegger turned and approached the barricades. He held up his thumb and forefinger, an inch apart, and gave an update. The pack surged forward, pressing against the metal barrier with microphones and mini-cassette recorders in outstretched arms. In the din of the scene, his answers were barely audible. Then he was gone, 15 minutes after he’d arrived.

A few days after taking office, Schwarzenegger gave a quick series of interviews to five Northern California TV stations. Each outlet got a total of about five minutes. “It was like a movie promotion,” said one participant, political reporter Kevin Riggs of Sacramento NBC affiliate KCRA.

A few weeks after his big premiere, Schwarzenegger spoke to reporters in a January appearance at the Sacramento Press Club and set the tone.

“When I built my movie career, it was the press that helped me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the press.” Then he went on to thank the news media for helping him promote the Terminator movies and his recall candidacy, as if everything had been one big promotional tour and the political reporters were his flacks. “I want to thank all of you for this great job that you have done and for helping me so much,” Schwarzenegger said. He ended his remarks by half-jokingly telling reporters to put stories about his recovery bond on their front pages. “Don’t let me down, now: Cover story.”

Schwarzenegger then took questions, but it was one of only a few times he did so during the first months after his debut.

When the administration neared its 100th day, the governor still had not given one-on-one interviews to print reporters. An exception was Charlie LeDuff of The New York Times. Before and after the recall, LeDuff said he spent months pestering the Schwarzenegger team for access—a workout, maybe a motorcycle ride. Finally, in February, LeDuff and a photographer accompanied Schwarzenegger and some Tinseltown pals on their usual Sunday-morning motorcycle ride into Malibu Canyon. There were no conditions, and no press handlers were present. “If you can get him by himself, he’s more forthcoming than his people are,” LeDuff said. In the article, LeDuff noted that “the governor was making sure the public saw him” by letting a reporter tag along.

A few days after LeDuff’s piece ran, the governor’s press staff dedicated the weekly briefing to the upcoming 100-day milestone. Communications Director Rob Stutzman took the podium to spin reporters writing about the governor’s maiden voyage. Stutzman went down a list of 10 campaign promises, making his case on each point. When he took questions, one reporter wanted to know when the press would get some face time with the governor. “The governor has had limited access, other than with those who ride Harleys,” the reporter said.

“The governor is accessible,” Stutzman shot back.

The room erupted in laughter and groans.

“He’s not accessible to us,” yelled someone in back.

The governor had taken questions 41 times, Stutzman said. Another reporter pointed out that most of those instances were on the friendly turf of conservative talk-radio airwaves.

Generally, the administration doesn’t get high marks from the news media for making the governor accessible.

“I think he’s the least accessible of all the governors I’ve covered,” said Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, who has covered seven since starting here as a United Press International reporter in 1961. For a few years, Skelton also covered Ronald Reagan in the White House, where access came easier. “He was more accessible as president than this guy is as governor,” Skelton said.

In December, the press office instructed reporters to e-mail any interview requests for the governor, the first lady or senior administration officials. Some reporters are still waiting for an answer.

Radio reporters feel especially left out. Though the governor has made plenty of time for numerous conservative talk-radio hosts, he hasn’t given a one-on-one interview to radio reporters.

That irks John Myers, bureau chief for public radio stations KQED in San Francisco and KQEI in Sacramento. His interview requests went nowhere. “It’s a problem for the public as a whole,” said Myers, who also files reports for National Public Radio and for the California Report, which airs on 23 public radio stations around the state. “This governor can and should be more accessible to reporters who are trying to present his ideas to the people.”

Capital Public Radio reporter Mike Montgomery didn’t hear back about his interview request, either. “The problem is Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t make himself available to people at my level,” he said.

At a local Costco, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger found bargain coverage when he spoke briefly without really taking questions.

Photo By Larry Dalton

SN&R had the same experience. The press office never responded to a request for an interview with either the governor or someone from the administration. Months later, when SN&R first called Press Secretary Margita Thompson for this article, it took four calls and two office visits to hear back—not from her, but rather from her deputy, Ashley Snee.

Most of the more than 30 Capitol-press-corps members interviewed for this article faulted the lack of access. Some complained that the accessibility problems extended beyond the governor’s office and the governor himself.

“They’re not really willing to put reporters in touch with people in key positions in the administration to do really substantive policy interviews,” said Paul Feist, statehouse editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Others were more charitable. “We have no major complaints,” said 25-year Capitol reporter Ed Mendel, of The San Diego Union-Tribune. Sacramento Bee Political Editor Amy Chance said there’s more demand for access to the governor, not necessarily less access. There are always tensions, she said, but this administration seems “willing to work with us.”

Still, as folks like Dennis Miller, Tim Russert and Jay Leno chatted up the governor during the first months of the administration, it struck some reporters as a continuation of the celebrity campaign strategy that Schwarzenegger used to win the recall election: Play for the cameras and keep the political press at arm’s length.

At the end of March, the governor did sit for a round of interviews with 11 daily newspapers and three wire services. Big papers—like the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Sacramento Bee—got 20 or 30 minutes alone on the patio with the governor, and some smaller papers—such as The Bakersfield Californian and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside—had group interviews.

A couple of days later, Skelton asked the press office if Schwarzenegger would run for re-election. Instead of an unreturned phone call, Skelton got an unexpected invitation to interview the governor on the patio, in the smoking tent.

Stutzman pointed to the round of interviews to counter any claims that the governor hides behind a public-relations team. “We just gave interviews to every print bureau, and I had many of those reporters get up, thank the governor and say this was something Gray Davis never did,” he said.

The patio chats didn’t do much to ease concerns about Schwarzenegger’s accessibility. In spite of that brief window of access, this administration represents a big change from its predecessors.

The celebrity campaign makes perfect sense, in a way, because it makes the print press less relevant and instead plays to TV, which is easier to tailor to the administration’s visual needs.

“Schwarzenegger has figured out how to leverage his celebrity toward his policy and political goals,” said Dan Schnur, a top Republican political consultant who worked as communications director for former Governor Pete Wilson and for John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. Schnur founded the Sacramento consulting firm Command Focus with longtime friend Stutzman, who quit the firm for the administration.

Schwarzenegger and his advisers know he’ll be covered regardless of how much access is granted, Schnur said, and “if people tune in to hear the bodybuilding stories and Conan jokes, he understands how to move their attention toward his administration’s goals.”

An example was the governor’s State of the State address, which included a quotable line on the snoozy topic of governmental reorganization. “I don’t want to move boxes around; I want to blow them up,” Schwarzenegger declared.

“They knew,” Schnur said, “that every [TV] news director on the planet was going to have to use that language. The idea of an action hero blowing things up was just too irresistible. But they also knew that in order for the newscasts to use that language, they’d have to spend a minute or two explaining what he was talking about.”

San Francisco-based Democratic communications consultant Chris Lehane, who spun the Clinton White House through scandals, worked as Al Gore’s campaign press secretary and tried to save Davis’ image during the energy crisis, said Schwarzenegger has earned good grades so far for his handling of things in part because of the administration’s skill at controlling his message. One example was how the governor used the cameras that day at Costco. “They’ve made a conscious decision to go above and beyond the print guys and the folks who do the day in, day out reporting in Sacramento, and use a strategy which they employed in the recall … to communicate to a larger audience via local television.”

Schnur and Lehane both see Schwarzenegger’s dominance of the media landscape as closer to a president than a governor.

“Because of his unique status,” Schnur said, “he has the visibility and the communications potential of a presidential candidate, so, in essence, you’re bringing presidential-style media strategy to the state level for the first time.”

Communications Director Rob Stutzman says no amount of access to the governor is good enough for reporters.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In fact, Schwarzenegger’s new press secretary, Thompson, once did the same job at the White House for Lynne Cheney. Thompson also worked as California press secretary for Bush/Cheney in 2000 and as press secretary for Dick Riordan’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. After Riordan’s loss, Thompson became the Washington, D.C.-based political producer for CNN’s Larry King Live. And, during the recall, she had to work on setting up an interview with Schwarzenegger (she succeeded).

Stutzman, Thompson’s boss, is the brains behind the governor’s media strategy. He previously worked as communications director for then-Attorney General Dan Lungren and the California Republican Party, and is well-regarded among Capitol-press- corps members, many of whom have known him for years. They see him as affable, unflappable and always plugged in. “He’s the best I’ve seen in three administrations,” Bill Ainsworth, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, said of Stutzman.

Stutzman filters decisions with one question: Does it communicate what this governor is doing for California?

“It’s about utility,” Stutzman said. “The reporters themselves are not an end. They are a means to an end. And the end is communicating the governor’s message. They’re going to report on us no matter what.”

Stutzman rejects the idea that the governor isn’t accessible. “You’ll never find a reporter who said they have enough access,” he said. He said the governor makes appearances all over the state and that the way to evaluate his accessibility is to look at how available he is to the media in general, not just the Capitol press corps. “I can’t help it if they don’t go to Los Angeles or San Francisco,” Stutzman said.

Ultimately, Stutzman plays the biggest role in deciding who gets access to the governor: “I make the recommendations and talk it over with [Schwarzenegger] to make sure that we’re distributing access in a way that optimizes his ability to communicate his message.”

That kind of strategy represents an evolution from past administrations.

Bill Stall observed the change from both sides of the pressroom podium. He started at the Associated Press’ Sacramento bureau shortly before Reagan took office in 1966. Before that, he worked for the Associated Press in Cheyenne, Wyo., covering a governor with no press staff. “You’d talk to the chief of staff, and if he wasn’t there, you’d just go in and talk to the governor,” Stall remembered.

Reagan brought in a more sophisticated press operation, Stall said, and he held press conferences every Tuesday while the Legislature was in session. Though the original actor-governor later earned a reputation for making goofs, he performed well in front of reporters. Stall tried to catch Reagan off guard but couldn’t. “He handled himself very well,” Stall said. “He knew his stuff.”

Reagan’s successor, Jerry Brown, hired Stall as press secretary. Brown didn’t like press conferences much, but he was easy to catch around the Capitol or at a bar he frequented across the street. When reporters approached Stall for a comment, Stall passed them on to Brown’s top aide. “Most of the time, I’d just have them talk to Gray Davis, who was the chief of staff. And people used to joke that Gray really wanted to be press secretary. He liked talking to the press; that was fun.”

After Brown left, Stall said, the trend with subsequent governors was to hire public-relations people, with more experience framing the issues, to run the press office, as opposed to journalists. Former Governors George Deukmejian and Wilson aren’t remembered for their warm relations with the Capitol press corps, but Davis, in spite of his background as a chatty staffer, ran what many reporters saw then as the low point for access. Davis’ performance as governor led to critical coverage, which, in turn, brought his approval ratings to Nixonian lows. Everything went downhill from there, and Davis suddenly found himself watching Schwarzenegger’s inauguration.

Stall is now an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, which hired him away from Brown. As Davis imploded last year, Stall embarked on a project. With so much attention suddenly focused on state government, he traced how Sacramento became so dysfunctional, and he recommended fixes for California’s complex problems in a series of editorials that ran for two months starting the day after the recall vote. Last month, the series earned a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

A day before the months-long negotiations over worker’s comp finally ended with a vote in both houses of the Legislature, Schwarzenegger held a press conference in the Capitol pressroom. Dozens of reporters, hungry for news about the agreement, filed in and took their seats. But instead of talking about the complex debate over workers’ comp, Schwarzenegger arrived there that day with Danny DeVito, Clint Eastwood and a few other Hollywood big shots to announce their appointment to the California Film Commission. Before taking questions, Schwarzenegger instructed reporters: “Keep it to the entertainment business.”

It was the kind of thing that angers TV reporter John Lobertini of San Francisco’s KPIX, who is frustrated that the governor blows off questions that aren’t on the designated topic of the day. “He’ll just tell you that we’re not here to talk about that today. What you get is what he’s pitching to the crowd,” Lobertini said. “We see him, but we don’t hear from him.”

Davis might have been relatively inaccessible, but reporters knew how to catch him and get him on the record about an issue. KCRA’s Riggs said Davis was easy to catch for a few questions after appearances at the Capitol. “Can’t do that with Schwarzenegger. They really keep us roped off and pretty far away,” he said. “If they control access, then they can control the message better.”

Often, the governor doesn’t take questions following his appearances. Typical of this was an April groundbreaking for a Genentech facility in Vacaville. The governor showed up, spoke for a few minutes and vanished without taking questions. Reporters who showed up to cover him were left only with his prepared remarks.

Another way of keeping reporters roped off is to use pool coverage. In some cases, such as a helicopter ride, it’s impossible to let 20 newshounds tag along. But Capitol reporters complain that access to the governor is now restricted even inside the Capitol.

Press Secretary Margita Thompson polished her skills at the White House.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Andrews, of the Sacramento Press Club, surveyed more than 30 members on the administration’s pool policy. “Nobody liked it,” he said.

Los Angeles Times reporter Carl Ingram, president of the Capitol Correspondents Association, has heard the same complaints.

Andrews, Ingram and other reporters brought the complaints to Thompson in December. They received no assurances that things would improve.

“There’s no real leverage you have with the governor,” Ingram acknowledged. “We can’t boycott him.”

In April, Ingram again wrote to Capitol reporters, seeking more input on pools to take to the administration. “Because of the increasing use of pools for coverage of the governor when he is in public, it seems that we must again express our concern and remind the governor’s staff of our continued opposition,” Ingram, a four-decade veteran of the Capitol press corps, wrote.

Myers, of KQED radio, said the unspoken rule for pool reporters is that you’re supposed to observe, not question. “It’s not a journalistic exchange,” Myers said. “It’s more being a passive observer, and observation is part of journalism, but so, too, is a critical examination of what’s going on, and you’re not really able to do that in a pool environment.” And with a pool situation, the majority can’t even observe in person.

For those who do catch Schwarzenegger, he will talk—and do a good job of it.

Schwarzenegger is straightforward in a way most politicians aren’t, but he’s also impulsive in a way that leads to gaffes. On Meet the Press, he told Russert that former Governor Wilson raised taxes after riots and natural disasters plagued the state, which wasn’t true. He also suggested that legalizing gay marriage could provoke riots and deaths.

Yet, flubs aside, Schwarzenegger is his own best spokesman. San Jose Mercury News Sacramento Bureau Chief Mark Gladstone said Schwarzenegger can be funny and self-deprecating while parrying questions. California State University, Sacramento, political communications Professor Barbara O’Connor said, “Even the most cynical of reporters find him disarming.”

In mid-April, when lawmakers took a week off, one of the biggest political stories of the week came out of Hawaii, where Schwarzenegger was vacationing with his family. The governor’s office wouldn’t reveal Schwarzenegger’s whereabouts, but Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Nicholas headed to Hawaii anyway. After initially heading to the wrong island, Nicholas learned (he won’t say how) that Schwarzenegger was at the Four Seasons on Maui. Nicholas got to the island, checked in at the hotel, went to the lobby and bumped into Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver. They looked stunned, Nicholas said, but “they were gracious,” and Schwarzenegger agreed to talk the next day. Nicholas met Schwarzenegger on the hotel patio in the morning. No press aides accompanied Schwarzenegger, just Shriver, a longtime network-television reporter. They spent a half-hour talking about different topics, including the Legislature, which Schwarzenegger said should be cut back to part-time status because lawmakers introduce “strange bills.” The offhand remark made national headlines. Sources familiar with the situation said the governor’s handlers were irate.

The irony about the lack of access to the governor is that it’s paired with increased demand from news organizations for stories about state government, or the governor himself.

Television coverage has changed significantly, though not as much as some predicted at the time of Schwarzenegger’s made-for-television electoral triumph, when it was assumed that stations would splurge for constant Capitol coverage. But TV stations are paying more attention to state government than they have since the last out-of-town news bureaus closed two decades ago.

Lobertini, for example, is a new, full-time Sacramento reporter for San Francisco CBS station KPIX. ABC stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno jointly hired a new Sacramento reporter, Nannette Miranda, whose stories air on all three outlets. NBC stations in San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area hired a new full-time field producer, Jim Jacobs, who works with various reporters assigned to Sacramento.

Newspapers are changing, too. Reporters and editors cite increased demand—or interest, anyway—from newsroom higher-ups. At the same time, outposts maintained by the biggest dailies aren’t really adding new writers. Knight Ridder, which owns San Jose’s Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and two other California papers, brought a new editor to its Sacramento bureau.

Though newspapers still drive coverage in other media formats, especially television, the pencil press may not be as important as it used to be in a made-for-TV administration.

“Everything is timing and staging,” said one veteran Capitol scribe. “He’s running a Hollywood-style theatrical-visual governorship. From the day he was sworn in, it’s all been imagery.”

Twenty-four hours after trotting out DeVito and Eastwood, Schwarzenegger was back in the pressroom, this time taking questions about the workers’-comp bill that had landed on his desk that day.

He wore a tan suit and burgundy tie that went well with the blue curtains behind him. Senior administration staff lined the wall to the side, observing the 14 TV cameras, 40 reporters and four photographers who showed up to cover the announcement, which would be the latest in a series of huge victories for the rookie governor. Schwarzenegger was calm and smooth, talking slowly. Reporters pressed him to justify why the agreement took shape in secret and got committee approval in the middle of the night after he’d campaigned on open government. Schwarzenegger blamed deadlines.

Hypocrisy aside, the administration still had a big win.

And no matter how much they’d been kept in the dark during the process, the members of the Capitol press corps scribbling in their notebooks would put the news on the front page, just where Schwarzenegger wanted it.